It is said that women around the world react differently when their husbands are caught cheating. A Frenchwoman kills the mistress, an Italian kills the husband and a German kills herself.
What does an American do? In Isabel Fonseca's first novel, she rinses the breakfast dishes.
Jean Hubbard is a passive woman with a "lifelong allergy to any kind of request," a syndicated health columnist living on a tropical island with her British ad-man husband.
Even the arrival of a wildly sexy missive (from a temptress named Giovana, nicknamed Thing 2) addressed to Mr. Hubbard doesn't really dislodge her. "What was being asked of Jean with this affair?" she wonders airily.
Her reticence is weird, though plausible; sure, one might more readily identify with Jill Clayburgh's Unmarried Woman as she pukes against the lamppost, but hey! Let a hundred schools of cuckoldry contend.
No, it's what Jean does after she puts the dishes away that's so infuriating. She decides to go online and pose as her husband, writing tentative pornmails to the long-distance mistress.
It's not the worst idea a novelist ever had. Wronged women are infinitely curious about the stranger who has been sharing their bed, and Jean's decision invites the fascinating question: Is what he does sexually really Who He Is?
But the holes in this bizarre scheme have holes. First, the husband would find out about it smart quick, and he doesn't. Next, the masochism is simply blinding. "Pretending to be your husband's libido was no parlour game, and of course every exchange with Thing 2 led to a punishing image of Mark and Giovana …" You supply the ensuing verb, I'll supply the "duh."
Anyway, this cart is so rickety that Fonseca wisely abandons it early on, and thank God, because the book becomes much, much better as it progresses. This author well knows that sorrows visit middle-aged women not as single spies but in battalions: adultery yes, but also breast cancer, sick parents and friends, an empty nest, work-family imbalance, the fear of aging. It is amazing that Fonseca can pack all these in, and that she gives each its doleful due.
True, Attachment is a bit of a survey course - each one of these episodes is a novel in itself, if not a self-help book - but even the most average female life looks eventful when viewed through such a wide-angle lens.
And all is not gloom, because Fonseca is a hopeful writer too. In the midst of all this tumult, dowdy Jean does get a little payback, despite her initial cynicism. "Jean saw what was expected of her: she'd not only have to endure Mark's affair but be improved by it" - and yet, that is exactly what does happen. Is fortysomething renewal (Jean's is both sexual and professional) a cliché, or simply a best-case scenario?
In any case, Fonseca has definitely tapped a vein here; when I tell friends what this book is about, they instantly demand to borrow it, without waiting to hear if it's any good.
Good it pretty much is, and funny, though subtly so. Wallflower Jean gets herself in scrapes, but, except at the beginning, is not one for the goofy gesture (this could have been Bridget Jones: The Edge of Menopause, and it isn't, which is a good thing).
Yet Fonseca - here would be a good place to point out that she is, in real life, Martin Amis's glamorous American wife - can certainly get off a joke when she wants to. She describes mammograms with the comic precision her pa-in-law Kingsley once applied to hangovers: "Jean thought her breast might stick when she tried to unpeel it from the glass, and possibly rip, like a rug's rubber underlay."
It makes sense that Jean's transformation is not dramatic. Extreme makeovers are only ever external, and the book ends sensibly: Jean is still Jean, not some cartoon superheroine with a cape flying behind her. The character is all of a piece, but still a bit maddening. Her stoicism in the face of exceedingly painful experience would shame a dartboard.
It may be that her creator is in transition from the reporter's cool remove to the artist's emotional nudity. Fonseca has written one book before this, an acclaimed non-fiction tome about Roma culture ( Bury Me Standing).
But fiction is not a garden party; you're allowed to spill your tea, and if it's hot and falls on bare skin, so much the better. And though Fonseca's sentence-craft is unfailingly elegant - at the bottom of Jean's purse lies a "blue coulis of sunblock and exploded-pen ink" - I would trade her deftness in a second for some extra heat, some raw nerves, some Carrie Underwood smashing up her cheating boyfriend's car with a Louisville Slugger.
Now that would be fun to read about. And so wonderfully American too.
Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto writer with an interest in contemporary social issues.